Anne Noble, Ruby’s Room No 16 (2001). Collection Queensland Art Gallery. Purchased 2006. On display, Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until April 17. For more than eight years Anne Noble explored what children do with their mouths by taking unsettling close-up photographs of her young daughter, Ruby.
In a series of 45 large format, high-definition pictures, Noble captured Ruby’s mouth in various guises: poking out her tongue to reveal vividly coloured sweets or spewing forth a lurid orange tongue of bubblegum. In more confronting images, Ruby’s mouth is taped shut, or her lips smudged with red lipstick, or a thread pulled across her mouth, pressing into the softness of her flesh.
Nolan is one of New Zealand’s foremost artists and Ruby’s Room brought her international acclaim. Her work is in numerous collections, such as the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris and Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery.
Nolan’s way of working involves dedicating herself for a long period to one specific project; she worked on Ruby’s Room from 1998 to 2007.
Asked once why she chose to focus on the mouth, she replied that she wanted to present a record of growing up “through close scrutiny of a site where life happens — the mouth that speaks, tastes, smiles, reacts, learns, loves”. The photographs magnified moments of growing up that normally were not celebrated. “They’re deliberately not erotic, not romantic, not ideal, not perfect,” she said. “I was interested in overlooked moments that when depicted might create a discordant challenge to the adult romance with childhood as lost innocence.”
Some of the photographs from Ruby’s Room are on display in Brisbane in Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything, an exhibition celebrating the Gallery of Modern Art’s 10th birthday. As exhibition curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow and I stand before Ruby’s Room No 16, she says the artist made an interesting decision to use the repeat motif of the mouth, and she found an unusual way to emphasise that part of the body.
Ruby was about six when Nolan first started photographing her daughter. Depicting children has proved to be a contentious issue but, as Barlow explains, Ruby’s Room was a true collaboration between Noble and her daughter. The partnership started when Ruby objected to a photograph her mother took of her while she was sleeping on the couch. When Ruby later saw the photograph, she was uncomfortable about it and told her mum that if she was going to photograph her she had to ask. Ruby said they had to do it together.
Barlow believes we see Ruby as a collaborator, not just a passive subject. “Her own daughter’s insistence on being an active collaborator